FARMER & ARTIST
As we celebrate our milestone 225th anniversary, our Kindred Spirits series sees us collaborate with our fellow creatives; individuals and brands whose ethos mirrors and complements our own. Our partnership with Scottish artist and farmer Carolyn Milne focussed on British wool and took inspiration from Carolyn’s own paintings. Our Limited Edition Farmer’s Blanket is made with locally sourced Bluefaced Leicester wool, featuring a unique pattern that reflects the textures and brush strokes of her nature-inspired work.
The concept of The Farmer’s Blanket stemmed from our 2020 collaboration with HM King Charles III’s Campaign for Wool, marking their 10th anniversary. Through the campaign, an international community of woolgrowers, fashion designers and artisans work to promote the benefits of wool, and the anniversary project saw us work with Bluefaced Leicester fleece for the first time. For our Farmer’s Blanket, we have sourced Bluefaced Leicester fibres from four farms in Moray, near our Elgin weaving mill and one farm in Aberdeenshire.
Campaign for Wool’s Chairman, Sir Nicholas Coleridge said, ‘Johnstons of Elgin is one of the truly great British manufacturers. I regard them as nothing less than National Treasures, producing work of the highest quality and taste and always innovating in a creative way. They have been key supporters of HM King Charles III’s Campaign for Wool from its inception.’
The Farmer's Blanket is warm and durable - perfect for picnics and outdoor pursuits. The pattern is inspired by a series of six oil paintings created by Carolyn showing the fleeces' journey from sheep in the field to bagged fibre ready to be cleaned and spun. Johnstons of Elgin's Design Director, Woven, Laura Garner, fell in love with the colours, textures and brushstrokes in the initial stages of Carolyn’s work, using them as the basis for the blanket’s pattern.
‘We also took inspiration from vintage wool swatches within our archives, which had a hand-woven aesthetic. I felt these mirrored the beautiful hand-painted base layers of Carolyn’s work. I wanted to keep a soft aesthetic, so we mixed the colours with a raw, natural ecru shade,' Laura explained.
Carolyn Milne is a modest force of nature, splitting her time between her family, the farm, care work, and art. We sat down with Carolyn to discuss the Bluefaced Leicester project, which combines two of her lifelong passions.
What was the starting point for your collaboration with Johnstons of Elgin?
Johnstons of Elgin were looking for a local person with Bluefaced Leicester sheep, and I had kept my wool crop from the previous year because I wanted to find something that would give my wool a bit more value. I have a small flock, and I thought it might be fun to do something with it myself.
[Johnstons of Elgin Chairman] Jenny Urquhart came to the farm for a visit, we spoke about the sheep, and I showed her my art. So from that, we thought we could combine the two in the project. It's been a great collaboration to be involved in.
How long have you been painting?
I'm a self-taught artist. Art is something I've always done in the background, and I thought it was something that could bring us extra income.
I'm a mother of four boys, we live on a farm, and I grew up on a farm. I've always been involved in farming, and most of my art is related to agriculture. This is a series of six paintings from the field to the end of the clip. In the last of the series, the wool is in the bag and ready to be processed. It's been a great thing to be involved in.
Can you tell us about your painting process?
I work in oils, and if you're building an image, you can work wet on wet, but sometimes you want to work wet on dry. By working on a few paintings at a time, you can keep working rather than waiting for things to dry. Also, doing them together allows you to have similarities throughout the series.
These paintings start with sheep in a field, then the ewes coming down a road to be clipped. There's a painting where they are being clipped and a close-up of my brother shearing. In the next one, the wool is being rolled, and in the background, you can see sheep walking away after clipping. I took a while over the last one. At clipping time, at home growing up on a hill farm, you'll have a big clip, then a break for lunch and everyone will sit on the wool bags and have their cup of tea; and I wanted to try to portray that human aspect.
Our Design Director, Woven, Laura Garner, was inspired by the initial layers of the paintings. Can you tell us about that process?
Initially, on the canvas, I sketch in either pencil or charcoal pencil, and then I use a thinned-out oil in a burnt amber colour. I paint the picture very roughly, showing the lights and the shadows. If I want more texture in the background, I might do a rough painting on the canvas and let that dry. Then I add the initial layers, still with a thinned-out oil. When Laura visited, I had started that process. She really liked the lines and the textures. I was taken aback when she took inspiration from that for the blanket.
I mix all my own colours and try to keep a Scottish look in my colour palette. Much Scottish art uses more Mediterranean-inspired colours, which are lovely and cheery, but I'm always drawn to Scottish colours. Even when I'm driving, and I see grass at the side of the road, there's a lot you can draw from that.
Some people are almost architectural in their artwork, but I don't enjoy getting stuck on the lines. I prefer painting in a sort of free-flow style rather than getting into the structure of mechanical things. However, some of the paintings in this series contrast the free flow and the metal frames and equipment. You get that juxtaposition of the natural and the manmade.
Tell us about the human aspect of your paintings.
One of the paintings shows my brother John at work. To clip the sheep, you have to hold them in such a way that they are relaxed. Sometimes clipping is portrayed in a way that makes it seem cruel, but you almost need to caress the sheep to ensure they are comfortable while they're being shorn. In the painting, you can see a gentleness in John's hands. It's essential to shear the sheep, and they feel relief when the fleece comes off. Otherwise, in the hills, the fleece would eventually drag off of them. Wool is a natural product, and you need to have the whole cycle.
How much fleece was used in the project?
We needed 500 kilos for this project. I had my previous year's clip of 100 kilos, and I contacted some other Blue Faced breeders, got them to hang onto their Blue wool and collected it, took it to Johnstons of Elgin and from there, they arranged for it to be cleaned. There were five of us altogether who contributed to the 500 kilos.
It's about getting enough of the right type of wool. There are a lot of breeders in the UK, but many are small flocks. The Blues need a bit more care, so people don't tend to have larger flocks of those. I'm running a flock of around 20 now, and we take fleece from all of them except the lambs. It's a fine wool, and you want it to have a long staple so you have more length for spinning it into yarn. Shorter staples tend to be used for other things, such as carpets.